“To have Faith in Christ means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice.” — C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Reading the Bible can be a dangerous thing. It messes with you.
For many years I knew something was amiss with the way I was thinking of “faith” and “belief” in the Bible. The idea I had been given was that in the Old Testament, people were supposed to obey the law perfectly, but that this way didn’t work. Everyone failed and therefore deserved to be sent to hell. Now in the New Testament, because that old way failed, we were told that instead of being required to follow the law perfectly for salvation, we only needed to believe and profess faith in Jesus. It wasn’t about works anymore, it was now about the grace of God given to all who believe. And we were not supposed to try to do good things on our own; we only started to do good things when God changed us. If we did try to do good things on our own, this would only lead to pride and would not please God. “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.” But then of course attached to this was the expectation that God would change you. And you actually were expected to do good things to show that God was working in you. You were told that God would do it on the one hand, but then (with a wink and a nod), you were also supposed to just go do it. This left me feeling unsettled and confused. Are we supposed to go for it on this thing or not? If God was supposed to change me, why didn’t he simply get on with it for crying out loud? If God was all-powerful and all good, what was stopping him? There was also an inconsistency in the way this expectation was applied. Some sins (especially those sins that our group was not tempted by) were clearly markers that you were not really saved. But other sins that our group did struggle with were passed off as no big deal…after all, we are not perfect, and we can’t change ourselves.
This is of course an over-simplification, but it gives you the basic idea. However, as I said, reading the Bible messes with you. I was of course familiar with the main verses that talk about faith and works, and these verses were kept very much at the front and center of many discussions. But as I read and studied more deeply, I kept finding things that seemed to contradict the paradigm I had been given, and I would find myself trying to explain these things away. First, if you allow the Hebrew scriptures to speak for themselves, they do not submit to this caricature. We never see God telling people that they must follow the law perfectly or they will be sent to hell. In fact, hell is almost never mentioned at all, and we see a God absolutely willing to forgive. (Jer. 18, Ez. 18, etc). And in the New Testament, we consistently see Jesus and the apostles calling us to an actual way of life. “Blessed are you if you do these things”. This caused an “irritation of doubt” (more on this in future posts) to form in my mind, and I began to think more deeply about what Paul meant by words like “faith” and “belief”.
We will take a look at the actual words that the Bible uses for faith and belief, and therein we will find a very clear (if shocking) answer. Before we do that, let’s think through logically what belief means, even in modern English. What could Jesus have meant when he said “Repent and believe the Gospel”?
When I was in my early teens, I traveled to Chicago with my dad on a business trip. While we were there, we were able to visit the top of the John Hancock building. I actually wasn’t particularly afraid of heights, but I also hadn’t been to the top of a skyscraper before. The fact that I remember it so clearly indicates the effect that the heights had on me. As we walked out of the elevator on the top floor, I had that very peculiar feeling in my stomach commonly known as the “willies”. The windows were about ten feet in front of me, and they actually started right at the floor and angled out….so that if you were to lean out against the glass, you would be able to look right down to the bottom of the tower. But here is the point: I knew for a fact that the windows would not break if I leaned on them. I knew for a fact that I was extremely safe. In one sense, I believed that I was safe. So being the kind of person that I am, I naturally decided to test my belief. I intentionally stayed back from the edge at first and tried to summon up the courage to walk straight out to the window without slowing down, and lean out on the glass. I couldn’t do it. As I approached the window, my body absolutely prevented me from leaning all the way out. But after I tried it a few times, I was able to train my body. After a while, my entire being agreed with my mind. I fully believed the idea in a way that allowed me to take action in light of that reality.
We can see from this illustration that there are clearly different levels of belief. It is quite possible to believe something with one part of our brain without fully accepting it to the core of our being. We can also see that at least for particular types of beliefs, the process of “living out” or “embodying” them is a critical part of making the belief fully meaningful and effective. No matter how clearly we understand an idea in our heads, it doesn’t come into full effect as a core belief until we embody it and experience the truth of it for ourselves. We can also see that there are actions we can take that will more fully embed a belief to the core of our being, and help us accept it as a core belief. What we think about with our minds affects our bodies. What we do with our bodies affects what we think. It is a two-way street. We could also point out that if the belief that the windows would not break did not conform to reality, I would have found out right away…by either falling or seeing cracks form in the windows. In this case, of course, the evidence was quite clear that the windows would not break…but I still had to experience the truth of this for myself in order to fully accept the idea with my entire being. Once I did fully accept it, I could fully live in light of the reality of this truth. This new core belief gave me the freedom to walk around near the window without fear. The truth had set me free.
Many thinkers over the centuries have observed that the best way to find out what a person really believes is to observe their actions. I believe this is deeply true. It is affirmed by the Christian scriptures, other wisdom traditions, and just plain common sense. If I say that the best way to live is to love my enemies and yet my actions show that I clearly hate them…well then I think it is safe to say that I don’t actually believe it to the core of my being.
As we think through all of this, it becomes more difficult to make sense of the “faith vs. works” dichotomy. Jesus calls us to follow him and do what he commands. Clearly, he is pointing to embodied belief. He is calling us to “lean against the glass”. Does this mean we must do things “on our own”? Well, perhaps, but remember that all good things ultimately come from God. God is always with us, always our loving father, always helping us up and pushing us forward to take the next step, always longing for us to engrain his teachings into our muscle memory, in the same way we learn to ride a bike. From the beginning, God has been committed to working through human beings. So we obey through faith, and faith in this context means fully placing our trust and allegiance in him. When we show this sort of faith, we are empowered to lean out.
George MacDonald puts it this way:
“Is Christianity a system of articles of belief, let them be correct as language can give them? Never. So far am I from believing it, that I would rather have a man holding, as numbers of you do, what seems to me the most obnoxious untruths, opinions the most irreverent and gross, if at the same time he lived in the faith of the Son of God, that is, trusted in God as the Son of God trusted in him than I would have a man with every one of whose formulas of belief I utterly coincided, but who knew nothing of a daily life and walk with God. The one, holding doctrines of devils, is yet a child of God; the other, holding the doctrines of Christ and his Apostles, is of the world, yea, of the devil.” George MacDonald - Unspoken Sermons, The Truth is in Jesus
If you take a look at this statement and think it through, it raises some questions. If a person holds the “doctrines of devils” and yet lives out a daily walk with God, what does that say about the strength of their doctrine? If what you truly believe is shown by what you do, then it is clear that there is some kind of deeper “believing” going on, something deeper than the doctrine they hold in their heads. Which kind of belief do you think Jesus cares about?
These conclusions seem unavoidable, and they raise significant questions about the traditional understanding of belief and faith, especially when contrasted with works. Something else is clearly going on. So let’s take a closer look at the words used in the Bible for “faith” and “belief”.
The root word translated as “faith” or “belief” in the new testament is “Pistis”. It is used over 600 times in the New Testament and carries a fairly wide range of meaning, including simple cognitive belief, trust, faithfulness, and allegiance. But when the gospels introduce Jesus, the word carries a very specific meaning that is often missed by modern audiences. Remember, as you pick up the New Testament and start reading, you are diving into a story that is already moving along. Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the story of the Hebrew scriptures.
2 Samuel 7:12-13 "When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son"
So when Jesus arrives and makes his announcement, his words are tapping into this and many other promises. Jesus is presenting himself as the long-awaited anointed one, the Messiah, the King.
Mark 1:15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
So we are asked to believe the “good news”. But what is that good news? The term “euangeliō” or “gospel” or “good news” was a term used to announce the coming of a new king. When a new king had taken over, he would send heralds out to the people and let them know the “good news”. It has the feel of a royal announcement. So the way Jesus uses it makes sense as he links it up to his announcement that the kingdom of God has “come near”. In this context, the word “pisteuete” means much more than mental assent. In the context of a coming King, Jesus is clearly using the word “pisteuo” as “allegiance”. Of course, this includes mental assent, but Jesus is asking us to repent and give our allegiance to him. Matthew Bates and other scholars show that the word “pistis” is very commonly used at that time to mean exactly this: allegiance, or fidelity, or loyalty to a king.
Here is a classic example of Jesus showing up at the local synagogue and making his announcement:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This makes sense of the rest of Jesus’ life and teaching. He shows up, announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and then he begins to teach and tell us what the Kingdom of God is like. He starts by delivering people from spiritual oppression and healing them. He tells us that because his Kingdom is coming, the poor will be blessed. Because of his Kingdom, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. He commands us to love our enemies and so prove that we are God’s children. Why does this prove we are God’s children? Because that is what God is like. He seeks out the oppressed and the marginalized. He gives the hungry food. He opens the eyes of the blind. How do you become the greatest in this Kingdom? By being a servant. The king of the universe shows up in human form, and instead of demanding blood sacrifice, he actually identifies with the victim! He gives himself in our place. He bears our burden. He draws the forces of evil and darkness to himself and defeats death by death. This is what the world looks like when God’s reign comes to earth. When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Darkness is defeated by light. Love conquers death.
So Jesus says “repent and believe the Gospel”. In this context, he is saying that his Kingdom has arrived and that we are invited to be a part of it. We need to repent, to re-think and re-adjust our perception of reality to align with his new Kingdom.
This really is the only way that Jesus’ teaching makes any sense. It is because his Kingdom is coming that the poor are blessed. It is because of his coming Kingdom that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Turning the other cheek and loving our enemies isn’t very practical. But that’s the point. His Kingdom is coming. We must actively readjust our thinking to align with this radical new reality.
But then what about Paul’s writings? What about the Roman road, and salvation by faith alone? Well, Paul is actually tapping into exactly the same idea. Look at how he starts his famous letter to the Romans:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. — Romans 1:1-6
So just as we saw in the gospels themselves, Paul anchors his “gospel” firmly in the Hebrew scriptures. He says that the gospel was “promised beforehand”, and immediately shows that Jesus was the promised descendant of David, “Jesus Christ our Lord”. “Jesus Christ is Lord” was the mantra of the early Christian church. There are two things about this that modern readers easily miss. The first is that it is so clearly connected to the promised son of David who would come and rule. The second is that the phrase “Caesar is Lord” was literally engraved on coins at the time. So for Christians to say “Jesus is Lord” was subversive and dangerous. Declaring Jesus as Lord meant that Caesar was not. It meant that your ultimate allegiance was to Jesus and not to Caesar.
“They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” — Acts 17:7
So when we have “faith” in Jesus, we are placing our trust and allegiance in him. When we do this, God declares us to be “in the right”, and the consequences of our sin (and the sin of the whole world) are laid on him.
When Paul tells us that we are saved by faith and not by works, he is saying that now that the new King has arrived, we show that we are part of God’s family by placing our allegiance and trust in Jesus as our King, rather than by particular works of the law. This in no way minimizes the importance of obedience to Christ. On the contrary, it elevates the importance of obedience. This obedience is not done in order to appease God (it was never about that). Instead, this obedience is about believing the gospel. When we truly believe that Jesus is bringing his Kingdom, and when we truly believe to the core of our being that he has taken the sin of the whole world upon himself and conquered the evil powers of this world, when we truly believe that the way of Jesus really is the way to life, we act on it. Jesus’ Kingdom is coming, and he has opened the way up for all to come and be a part of it.
“When Jesus first called the four disciples along the Sea of Galilee he didn’t say “receive me into your heart” but “follow me”. When a crisis arose among his followers he didn’t say “you’re safe” or “get your orthodoxy on” but “deny yourself and take up your cross”. Moreover, when he finished the greatest sermon on earth, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus didn’t say “Repent and believe these things” but “the one who hears these words of mine and does them”. So too the apostles: Paul, Peter, and John called their listeners to a life swamped by the Spirit, a life of holiness amidst suffering, and a life of living in the light of love.” — Scott McKnight, from the forward of Matthew Bates’ “Salvation by Allegiance Alone”
In the western Protestant world, it is difficult for us to get this idea into our heads. But once we do, it unlocks the New Testament in powerful ways. The “pistis” word group does have a rich range of meaning, but do notice that it never means “blind faith”. It simply does not mean that at all. We are not asked to believe with no evidence. We don’t get a ticket to heaven by playing a mental trick in our heads and deciding to believe something that we have no reason to believe. The meaning of the word does include mental consent, but it is so critical to understand that when we see the words “faith” or “belief”, we are seeing the same word that could be translated as “faithful” or “allegiance” or “trust”.
Here is just one of many examples of the word “pistis” being used in 3 Maccabees:
“While these matters were being arranged, a hostile rumor was circulated against the Jewish nation by some who conspired to do them ill, a pretext being given by a report that they hindered others from the observance of their customs. The Jews, however, continued to maintain unswerving loyalty [pistis] toward the dynasty; but because they worshiped God and conducted themselves by his law, they kept themselves separate with respect to foods. For this reason, they appeared hateful to some” — 3 Maccabees 3:1-4
So here again we see pistis being used as “loyalty” or “allegiance. This is an extremely common use of the word, and there are many more I could show you. When we see Jesus clearly being elevated as king, when we see him coming and announcing the gospel “euangelion” of his Kingdom, there can be very little doubt that this is the meaning that Jesus and the other writers of the new testament mean when they use this word in regards to the gospel. This is why Paul has no problem talking about the “law of Christ”, or issuing commands about how we should live as Christians. He saw no contradiction because he was not contrasting “things we do on our own” with “things we do because we have faith and then God makes us do it”. Paul is simply saying that when we place our “faith/trust/allegiance” in Jesus, we become part of the family of God. The marker that shows we are part of the family is no longer “works of the law” but trust and allegiance to Jesus the great King.
But of course, our “pistis” to Jesus isn’t always strong. It is hard to trust. It is difficult to submit to his Kingdom. Jesus’ view of reality is amazing and beautiful, full of love and grace, but it is also incredibly lofty. It is radically at odds with our given worldview. So the call is to see the beauty of Jesus and to give him our allegiance. As we do that, we begin to “lean against the glass”. We begin to “Taste and see that the Lord is good”. As we begin to surrender our way for his way, our entire being begins to trust and believe. This way is truly the way to life. This is how transformation happens over time.
He who trusts in the Lord will not be put to shame.